Exploring Constantinople with Edmondo De Amicis
The Golden Horn, rowboats and the Galata Tower as pıctured in the book “Yadigar-ı İstanbul” (Reminiscence of İstanbul) by Nurhan Atasoy, a professor of art history. (Collagea: Selahattin Özdoğan)
When the Italian journalist and travel writer Edmondo De Amicis steamed excitedly toward a mist-shrouded Constantinople in 1875, he was under no illusions about the sheer magnitude of the literary task that lay before him.
“Who could dare to describe Constantinople?” he noted in the opening pages of his travel classic “Constantinopoli.” In other words, how could a humble scrivener such as Amicis possibly capture, in mere words, the essence of a city whose superb setting, exotic architecture and heady Eastern atmosphere had so intoxicated countless visitors before him — and challenged the abilities of some of the world’s most erudite writers.
First impressions — superb, sublime!
Yet, inevitably, the passionate Amicis dared to try. As his ship ploughed through the Sea of Marmara toward the entrance to the Bosporus, the feverishly excited Italian gripped the ship’s rail and watched with delight as the old city slowly sloughed off the ghostly veil enveloping it, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye and the other great Ottoman imperial mosques rising from the green hills of the historic peninsula, a panoply of “enormous domes and minarets, packed and mingled like a grove of gigantic palm trees without branches.”
A “weightless-seeming” Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) “rose up from the summit of a hill and rounded gloriously into the air, in the midst of four slender and lofty minarets, whose silvery points glittered in the first rays of the sun” while across the strait in Asia, Scutari (Üsküdar) revealed itself as “a town made of ten thousand little purple and yellow houses, of ten thousand lush green gardens, of a hundred mosques as white as snow.” Rounding Seraglio Point (Saray Burnu), he saw Galata, “a hill of many-coloured houses and, one above the other, a lofty city crowned with minarets, cupolas and cypresses.”
Amicis saved his most laudatory prose for the scene that unfurled as the ship nosed its way into the curved dagger of water that is the Golden Horn. With the old city and its fabled skyline of mosques and minarets stretching ahead of him into the misty distance on the south bank of the waterway, the plush embassies of Pera crowning the hill dominating its northern shores, he wrote breathlessly: “And here is the city of Constantinople. Endless, sublime, superb! The glory of creation and of the human race!”
Amicis certainly cannot be accused of understatement, and if he were alive today it’s tempting to think of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture gainfully employing the poetic Italian to promote the city of İstanbul to the world. Amicis was, however, far more than a panegyrist for a city about which he had “read a hundred books,” and of which he believed, before his visit, that “all the world thinks is the most beautiful place on earth.”
A more considered view — city in transformation
Viewed from his perch in Pera’s Hotel Byzantium, the mysterious early morning dispersed by a powerful sun, the city spread out beneath him revealed itself in a different light. “The Constantinople of light and beauty has given place to a monstrous city, scattered about over an infinity of hills and valleys; it is a labyrinth of human anthills, cemeteries, ruins and solitary places; a confusion of civilisation and barbarity.” Yet worse, it was “really only the skeleton of a great city — the walls [i.e., the old city] … the rest is an enormous agglomeration of shacks, an interminable Asiatic encampment swarming with peoples of every race and religion.”
Amicis was, naturally, a product of his time. Subject to the pernicious influences of Orientalism, he could be as patronizing as any of his contemporaries about the civilization, culture and faith of the peoples he traveled among. Yet few İstanbulites today will fail to be amazed by how his description of the city some 138 years ago mirrors its condition today. “It is a great city in the process of transformation, composed of ancient cities that are in decay, new cities which emerged yesterday, and other cities now being born; everything is in confusion; on every side can be seen the vestiges of gigantic works, mountains bored through, hills cut down, entire districts levelled to the ground, great streets laid out; an immense mass of debris and remains of conflagrations upon ground forever tormented by the hand of man.”
People-watching on the Galata Bridge
If the Constantinople of Amicis’ day was every bit as chaotic and fast-changing as İstanbul is today, so too was the Galata Bridge the best place to people-watch — or, as he put it, “To see the population of Constantinople, it’s a good idea to go upon the floating bridge.” There, he advises the visitor to “choose a small portion of the bridge and fix your eyes on that alone, otherwise in the attempt to see everything one ends up seeing nothing.”
From his “small portion,” Amicis watched in awe as a variegated cross section of the world’s most cosmopolitan city paraded by: “Turkish porters bending under enormous burdens … a Greek gentleman followed by his dragoman in an embroidered hat … a crowd of Persians in pyramid-shaped hats of Astrakhan fur … a Catholic priest … a confused throng of Greeks, Turks and Armenians … a fat eunuch on horseback … an Albanian in his white petticoat and with a pistol in his belt … a Bedouin wrapped in a white mantle … the Tartar dressed in his sheepskins.” From Jewish women in traditional garb to a Sister of Charity from a Pera hospital and a “negress” from Cairo to a European ambassador, there were many more denizens of, and visitors to, this great city crossing the bridge linking the old city with the European quarter on the north side of the Golden Horn.
The pervasiveness of Western dress may have rendered the scenes on the Galata Bridge a little less colorful today, though they are scarcely less cosmopolitan, even if the assorted races, nationalities and faiths are harder to tell from each other than they were in Ottoman times. For at the time of Amicis’ visit the different millets (nationalities) of the Ottoman Empire still wore distinguishing footwear — the Greeks turquoise shoes, the Armenians red, the Jews black. But although the various communities who made up the populace of the city may have been quite separate from each other in many ways, they had, according to Amicis, one thing at least in common: They were all out “to cheat you.” The innocent abroad was then, as now, always prey to the more unscrupulous elements of the host society and Amicis soon found himself fleeced by, among others, Armenian barbers, Jewish shoeblacks, Greek coffee sellers and Turkish caique rowers.
From the Galata Tower to Gezi Park
In the company of his friend Junk, Amicis explored Constantinople largely on foot — still the best way for the visitor to get to grips with this most fascinating of cities. One of the first city landmarks he made for was the Galata Tower, then serving as a lookout for fires, writing, “It is a monument crowned with Genoese glory, and no Italian can look upon it without proudly remembering that small band of merchants, sailors and soldiers … who for centuries held the banner of their republic aloft and negotiated on equal terms with the emperors of the East.”
The district he was staying in, Pera (today’s Beyoğlu), he described as “the ‘West End’ of the European colony; the centre of pleasure and elegance.” Amicis’ Pera was “bordered with English and French hotels, elegant cafes, glittering shops, [and] theatres” where “there are dandies from Greece, Italy and France … and shady characters of every nationality,” and “the Muslim feels himself to be in a foreign country.” The district retains its hedonistic air today, and despite the precipitous decline in its Christian Armenian and Greek minority population since the formation of the Turkish Republic, it remains a vibrantly cosmopolitan neighborhood.
Having wandered up the Grand Rue De Pera (today’s İstiklal Caddesi), Amicis and Junk found themselves among first Muslim and then Christian cemeteries, in an area that is now Taksim Square. Amicis also commented on seeing here “the enormous artillery barracks built by Halil Pasha, a solid rectangular edifice in the Moorish style of the late Turkish architecture.” The barracks described by Amicis were demolished in 1939-40 to make way for Gezi Park, though controversial plans by the current government to rebuild them as a shopping mall now seem unlikely to go ahead.
Turkish coffee and the call to prayer
Having explored the quarters around what is now Taksim, Nişantaşı and Tatavla (today’s Kurtuluş), the intrepid Amicis and Junk ventured down to the districts bordering the northern shore of the Golden Horn. Unlike the districts they’d previously explored, Kasımpaşa was firmly Muslim, and they sat admiring the splendid views over to the old city from a “mean little place” of a cafe, where they “sipped the fourth or fifth of those twelve daily cups of coffee which everyone in Constantinople needs to take, whether he wants it or not.”
In nearby Piyalepaşa, Amicis watched with fascination a muezzin appear on the “terrace of the minaret” and make the call to prayer. Moved, he wrote, “No tolling bell has ever touched my heart like this; and on that day I understood for the first time why Mohammad, calling the faithful to prayer, had preferred the human voice to the trumpet of the Israelites, or the tocsin [bell] of the early Christians.”
In the second part of this feature we’ll cross the Golden Horn with Amicis to explore the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia, walk the mighty land walls of Theodosius and learn Amicis’ less-than-complimentary views on Turkish cuisine.
Exploring Constantinople with Edmondo De Amicis: Part 2
(Photo: Today’s Zaman)
Were a writer to pen these words today, it’s not difficult to imagine millions of Turks springing to the defense of the nation’s best known dish and deluging the unfortunate scribe with caustic emails — not to mention thousands of kebab chefs across the land brandishing their skewers menacingly in his direction. Fortunately, the Italian travel writer Edmondo De Amicis, who wrote these words after visiting İstanbul back in 1875, is protected by the mists of time, and no-one will ever know whether the kebab he ate in a Pera (today’s Beyğolu) restaurant was as bad as he says or simply not to his taste.
Amicis is equally uncomplimentary about the other Turkish dishes he tried, from “pilau, composed of rice and mutton” and “balls of rice rolled in vine leaves” to “marrows reduced to a syrup” and “sauces seasoned with every kind of aromatic herb.” Having sampled around 20 different dishes, the Italian wrote disparagingly, “It seemed to me that I had swallowed the contents of a portable pharmacy.” Amicis’ dislike of Turkish cuisine can be attributed, perhaps, to a bad choice of restaurant mixed with an Italian culinary chauvinism understandable in the period in which he was writing. Whatever the truth, Amicis was simply, as all serious travel writers must, describing the place he visited as he saw and experienced it.
Much else in Constantinople was, however, very much to the keen-eyed Italian’s taste. The Spice Bazaar on the Eminönü waterfront he describes as “a vast stone edifice, through which runs a long, straight, covered street, flanked by dark shops and crowded with people, chests, sacks and heaps of merchandise. You are met by so strong an aroma of spices that it almost knocks you backwards.” Apart from the fact that today the shops are brilliantly illuminated with electric lights, Amicis’ words could be just as easily used to describe the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) as it is today.
Bandits in the bazaar
From the Spice Bazaar, Amicis made his way up the hill to a rather larger covered market, the Grand Bazaar, which he introduces as “that dark and hidden city full of marvels, treasures and memories.” Here too, the modern tourist will find that things have changed surprisingly little since Amicis’ visit. “At a hundred paces from the great entrance gate are stationed, like so many bandits, the merchants’ middlemen; they recognise a foreigner at first glance, have at once divined that he is coming to the bazaar for the first time, and in general can guess pretty well from what country he comes so that they’re rarely wrong in choosing which language to use with him.”
If Amicis’ words are to be believed, the hustlers hunting-down foreign visitors to the Grand Bazaar today are mere dilettantes who, perhaps spoilt for choice by the foreign hordes descending on the market, are easily distracted from their prey. Hustlers were hustlers in Amicis’ day and, according to the vexed urban explorer, having spent an age fending off their unwelcome attentions “either you go on wasting your breath or you let him accompany you.” Despite the market hassle, he was transfixed by the labyrinthine passages of the Grand Bazaar. “There are a hundred little bazaars contained in a great one … and each bazaar is at the same time a museum, a passageway, a market and a theatre, where you may look at everything without buying anything, drink coffee, enjoy the coolness, chatter away in ten languages, and make eyes at the prettiest women in the Orient.”
Although fake designer goods were in short supply at the time of Amicis’ visit, many of the goods on offer in the Grand Bazaar were similar to those sold some 138 years later, with “brocades from Baghdad, carpets from Karaman, silks from Bursa … cushions arabesqued in gold, silk veils woven with silver thread, gauze scarves with blue and crimson stripes” just some of the items that caught the wanderer’s eyes. And like many an unwitting visitor today, soothed by endless glasses of apple tea and a sweet-talking rug retailer, Amicis was aware of the dangers posed to the wallet by this veritable cornucopia of delights. “It’s an emporium of such beauty and such abundance that it is enough to ruin your eyes, your brains and your pocket; you must be on your guard, for the slightest whim might mean you need to telegraph home for a loan.”
Church, mosque or museum?
Given recent calls for the Ayasofya Museum to be turned back into a mosque, one of the most interesting aspects of Amicis’ visit to this world-famous building is that he describes what was then very much still a Muslim place of worship. Accompanied for the sake of fairness by a Turkish Muslim kavass (armed servant) and a Greek Christian dragoman (interpreter), his explorations of what was originally the sixth-century Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) before it became the Ayasofya mosque following the Ottoman conquest of 1453 nonetheless show his Christian bias.
For Amicis, “the exterior has nothing worthy of note,” the simplicity and cohesiveness of its original design swamped by post-Ottoman accretions such as the four towering minarets, the tombs of various sultans and the buttresses added by Sinan and other Ottoman architects. Indeed, so unimpressed with the exterior of the Ayasofya was Amicis that he noted sadly. “St Sophia can scarcely be distinguished from the other great mosques of Stamboul, apart from its being shabbier and heavier, much less would you think it ‘the greatest temple in the world after St Peter’s’.”
Rather than stumping-up TL 25 for a ticket to enter what has been since the mid-1930s a museum, as a foreigner Amicis could only enter the Ayasofya after obtaining a firman (an official permission document) well in advance. Donning slippers at the entrance to the prayer hall from what had been the inner narthex of the church, Amicis stepped into the great, echoing space beneath the dome and semi-domes that seem to float high above the former nave.
At last the Italian was almost impressed, writing, “the first impression is truly grand and unexpected.” He soon checks his initial enthusiasm, though, noting, “There is a disfigured majesty, a sinister bareness … a unique mixture of church and mosque, of severity and frivolity … of ill-assorted colours, and unfamiliar bizarre furnishings.” Perhaps he was loath, as a Catholic, to wholeheartedly embrace the grandeur of a building that was once the spiritual center of the Orthodox Christian world and, at the time of his visit, the most important mosque in the city.
To be fair, many a visitor today expresses similar confusion, though seldom as eloquently as Amicis. He goes on to describe the interior of the church-cum-mosque in great detail, from the Islamic additions such as the Sultan’s loge, the medallions inscribed with the names of Allah, the Prophet, the first four Caliphs and the Prophet’s grandsons, and the mihrab. The latter, the Mecca-facing prayer niche common to all mosques, is here slightly off kilter from the general alignment of what had been a church, and gazing down at the prayer hall from the gallery above Amicis wrote “all the prayer rugs are arranged aslant the lines of the building, and offend the eye like an elementary error in perspective.”
Despite being moved by the prostrations of the Muslim faithful at prayer and the “vague harmony of the low, monotonous voices of those reading and praying,” Amicis is left with a feeling of “sadness” at the fate of a building constructed as a church but now being used as mosque. On leaving an official presented him a “handful of mosaic pieces which he had just prised off the wall.” Almost a century earlier the British society figure Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had been gifted a similar quantity of these precious Byzantine tesserae whilst visiting the Ayasofya, which goes some way to explaining the gaps in the original mosaic ceiling and wall covering today.
Walking the walls
Like all the most curious visitors to the city, Amicis felt most at home when exploring the back streets on foot — whether it be places seldom visited today by foreigners, such as Sütlüce and Kasımpaşa, or conservative quarters within the walls of the old city such as Balat and Fener. So let’s leave him exploring what remains one of the city’s greatest, yet least visited sights, the majestic early fifth century land walls of Theodosius.
Wisely, before setting out from his Pera hotel one fine October morning, the Italian elected “to reduce the contents of my pockets to a minimum in case in any local thief should take a fancy to examining them.” Having strolled his way along the line of the sea walls bounding the south shore of the Golden Horn (Haliç) he came, in some two hours, to the land walls where they are pierced by Eğri Kapı. The walls then still looked west onto relatively open countryside, and Amicis wrote exultantly, “Where else in the whole Orient could one find in such a combination the grandeur of human achievement, the majesty of power, the glory of antiquity, the solemnity of remembrance, the melancholy of ruins, the beauty of nature.”
Still remarkably well preserved, Amicis was entranced by the remains of what are arguably the greatest fortifications ever built, and which have such symbolic significance for both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Walking the line of the walls south he took in many of the famous gates, the famed Byzantine shrine of Zoodochus Pege (Balıklı Kilise) and the Ottoman fortress of Yedikule. Finally, some six kilometers later, he came to the end of the land walls and looked out over the coruscating waters of the Sea of Marmara.
Amicis waxes lyrical about the history of the great walls in his account, but comes down to earth in his meanderings through the different quarters of the city nuzzling up to the sea walls flanking the Marmara side of the peninsula on which the old city is built. After what must have been a sixteen-or-so-kilometer-long hike, Amicis found himself amongst “the Greek and Armenian houses of Kumpkapı” where he “met only dogs, beggars and urchins, and heard only the cry of the muezzin at sunset.” Almost giving up hope of finding his way back, he is uplifted by the sudden sight of the “huge dome of the St Sophia.”
Having regained his bearings, he summons the energy to cross the historic peninsula and make his way across a darkened Galata Bridge to Pera. Here his friends Junk, Rossasco and Santora are waiting for him at his lodgings “hands outstretched and a smile on their faces — at which I heaved one of the longest and deepest sighs a gentleman has ever been known to give.” Many a visitor today, temporarily mislaid in the backstreets of this great city, will empathize with Amicis’ sense of relief at “finding” himself back in familiar territory.